Brody Roybal, 15, eyes gold medal in Paralympics

Written By BY RICK TELANDER | @ricktelander Posted: 03/05/2014, 12:14pm
Array Brody Roybal, 15, practices with his high school hockey team in Franklin Park, Ill., on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Roybal, a high school sophomore, is the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team which will play in Sochi, Russia in March 2014. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) ORG XMIT: NY391

Ah, if the world were only simple!

Double-amputee South African runner Oscar Pistorius helped make the 2012 Paralympic Games in London a smash hit, with overflowing crowds, intense media coverage and burgeoning respect for disabled athletes. Now Pistorius is on trial for murder.

A few weeks ago, Russia was basking in the splendor of its successful Winter Olympics in Sochi. Now Russian president Vladimir Putin has sent troops into Ukraine, which isn’t all that far from Sochi, just up the Black Sea, and shades of the Cold War have been resurrected.

The world holds its breath to see how the West responds. All the tinderbox needs is a spark. All Putin needs is a hammer and sickle.

And yet the Paralympics in Russia move onward, with the opening ceremony set for Friday.

Which brings us to another way in which the world isn’t simple: Why is it that most people have legs but a few don’t?

Yet that’s how it is.

And if you wanted to complain about it, then you wouldn’t have had a chance of making the U.S. men’s sled-hockey team, which opens play Saturday against Italy, plays South Korea on Sunday, then goes against Russia on Tuesday before the semifinals begin.

Think that U.S.-Russia matchup might have just a touch of the old ‘‘Miracle on Ice’’ animosity to it? How things change. How they remain the same.

But for 15-year-old Brody Roybal, a sophomore at Leyden High School in suburban Northlake and the youngest member of the team, world politics are distractions to be ignored.

‘‘No, we’re not really too worried about anything,’’ he said via phone Tuesday from Sochi. ‘‘We’re safe here in the village.’’

And all Roybal wants is a gold medal. The United States won gold at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, but Roybal was only 11 and still learning the game back then.

Born a congenital bilateral amputee, which means he doesn’t have a femur in either leg, Roybal gets around in a wheelchair when he’s not on his sleek two-bladed sled. And he’s on that a lot.

Back home, he gets up at 5 a.m. for hourlong skates at a rink in Bensenville before school starts. Then he works on conditioning with a trainer four to five times during the week. Then he gets on the ice every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday night with his team, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Blackhawks.

You use two poles to propel yourself and control the puck in sled hockey. If you don’t have superior upper-body and core strength, you will get the snot knocked out of you.

The game can be rough, but it is mostly graceful and thrilling to watch, a scaled-down, close-to-the-ice replica of regular hockey.

‘‘This is my life,’’ said the solidly muscled Roybal, who is listed in the program at 3-foot-1 and 120 pounds.

Think simply putting that info out there isn’t some kind of strong? And imagine this: Roybal isn’t the shortest member of the U.S. team. Teammate Greg Shaw, at 3 feet and 105 pounds, is.

Once you’re strapped into your custom-built sled, you become one with the apparatus and height is irrelevant. As 24-year-old teammate Kevin McKee put it: ‘‘We’re molded to the sled, so we’ll never fly off.’’

But you must propel yourself the length and width of the regulation-sized hockey rink and flip your sticks around to shoot the puck. The players with almost no legs at all often are the swiftest, and Roybal has a game that is built around speed.

When he turns 16 next year, he hopes to get his driver’s license and drive a hand-controlled automobile. Otherwise, he is a pretty normal high school kid. His closest pal on the team is 16-year-old Declan Farmer of Tampa, Fla. Farmer was born a double-amputee, and he skates on the same explosive line with Roybal.

‘‘They have nice arcades over here,’’ Roybal said of how he and Farmer spend their spare time in Sochi.

But this is really all about competition for the players, and the future is bright for Roybal and Farmer in this relatively new sport.

‘‘I think they have the potential to be two of the best players in the world,’’ said McKee, who was born with a spinal deformity called sacral agenesis.

You look at the disabilities for the players on the roster, and you can’t help but marvel: leg lost to an explosion in Iraq, double-amputee after being hit by a car while changing a tire, cancer amputation, paralyzed lower body after being hit in a junior-hockey game, spina bifida, motorcycle accident, lost both legs after trying to jump on a train, lost both legs to an explosion in Afghanistan.

Guys with Purple Hearts. Guys born this way. Accidents. Life itself.

Never easy. Never simple.

Thank God for sports.

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